With my late interest in oxen, and in the Red River ox cart, this year seemed like the year to go. (The ad about the event included a photograph of an ox cart.) The name Old Crossing, I knew, from reading the history of the Red River trails, came from this being where the Pembina Trail crossed the Red Lake River — in the 19th century many an ox cart had divided the waters at this location. Old Crossing had been the meeting place of ox cart drivers for years, before it was chosen as the site for treaty negotiations in 1863.
When we arrived, folks were strolling around the park and visiting the vendors. Some had dogs in tow, as dogs are welcomed at the festival. There were smoldering campfires, tents, and a few campers. At least one party had horses, and they were riding down by the river. A French-Metis band was playing a lively tune in the big white tent. There were more Metis folk songs to come, and the leader of the band gave an interesting introduction to each; some lyrics were stories from his own childhood. With one number, an unidentified young girl from the audience took the stage and danced a traditional jig. The name of the band is Coulee; they are from St. Laurent, a rural municipality on the shores of Lake Manitoba.
Upon entering the tent I had noticed in the audience a slightly weary looking, older gentleman dressed in period clothing. With tousled, greying hair hanging over his collar, he was seated by himself and was attentive to the musicians; perhaps he was one of the few who understood the French lyrics.
I was a bit surprised when this man took the stage and began to speak with the mesmerizing quality of knowledge mixed with humility — there was a hint of sadness in his voice, a grain of defeat, a sprinkle of rebellion — and a message of hope. It was clear that he was at the festival more to contemplate than to celebrate.
In an unassuming voice he was saying, “A few negotiate the future, while the others play ball — or knit — or do what you do on a daily basis.”
At the treaty negotiations in 1863, he told us, there were those who negotiated, those who were on guard duty, and those who were preoccupied with daily life — a few even engaged in horse racing. Along with the Indian and Metis leaders who came to the site in 1863, came many families — men, women and children.
With the speaker’s sash blowing in the breeze under the open-sided tent, horses whinnying, oblivious people chattering outside, dogs barking, the smell of wood-smoke, fresh baked bread and meat pies, I could imagine being seated with the treaty negotiators. The negotiator speaking at the moment was negotiating for the common good of man, and for the good of the common man. The speaker was Virgil Benoit, PhD.
Benoit then introduced Bobby Whitefeather one of the leaders of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. Whitefeather gave a rundown on the history of negotiations between the Indians and the United States.
Compared with the sublime face of the Indian chief on the pedestal at the entrance to the park, Whitefeather struck the image of a man who has carried heavy burdens. However, his message was also one of hope, including the hope that more of his people could be at the festival next year.
Old Crossing was more than a crossing of waters; it was a crossing of cultures. The hope presented was that we be reminded of our past (including the misdeeds of 1863), and that Old Crossing Treaty Park and the Chautauqua and French Festival serve to bring our cultures together, for an equitable and harmonious future.
Notably missing were the oxen and their carts.